Say “hello” to the conversation between humans and machines. With the help of only a few voice commands, you can resolve your booking queries, do financial transactions, schedule a meeting and even order your favorite pizza. And this is not a scene from a sci-fi movie. It is already happening everywhere – in our homes and at the workplaces. Conversational Artificial Intelligence or Voice AI that is introducing new and efficient methods of providing customer support is making it possible.
Experts believe that voice AI will be the next wave of technology. An offshoot of AI, Voice AI is a set of technologies that include voice chatbot, voice assistant, and other speech-enabled applications that understand natural language and interact with humans via mobile and/or web platforms.
These tools can understand user problems, respond in different languages, and answer customer queries in a way that mimics human conversation. In other words, Voice AI is revolutionizing the business world.
Tapan Barman, Co-founder and CEO, Mihup, a voice AI company, believes that voice AI is the future of business-customer interactions and hence a key part of a business’s communication strategy. “By incorporating conversational systems into interfaces, companies can enhance their customer experience and boost ROI,” he says.
It is little wonder then that companies are increasingly using voice AI that includes voice chatbots and voice assistants for resolving customer issues and driving engagement.
A research done by Statista observes that globally, there are 3.25 billion voice assistants in use. The research predicts that the number of voice assistants will touch nearly 8 billion units by 2023. That number is higher than the world’s population. These forecasts indicate that each individual will use more than one voice assistant in the next two years and that voice AI will dominate our life and business going forward.
Voice AI: Over the decades
While voice AI has seen phenomenal growth over the last few years, voice technology, including speech recognition, voice recognition, and voice assistants, has been around for some decades. The first voice speech recognition came in 1952 when Bell Labs produced Audrey, a machine that could understand spoken numbers.
In 1961, IBM was the first to introduce Shoebox. A forerunner of the modern voice AI system, it was touted as the first digital speech recognition tool that could recognize 16 words and 9 digits.
Following years brought technological advances that led to the development of ELIZA – the first chatbot ever in the 1960s by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum.
Voice and speech processing technology made gradual progress throughout time, but voice AI entered ‘mainstream’ only when Apple introduced Siri in 2010. It is hailed as the first modern era of voice assistants.
Siri was created by Apple for iOS and is an intelligent personal assistant that uses a natural language UI. This was followed by the launch of Google Now in 2012 and Microsoft Cortana in 2014 that became directly integrated into both Windows phone devices and Windows 10 PCs.
2014 also saw the birth of Alexa, an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon. Alexa is now built into devices such as the Amazon Echo, the Echo Dot, and Echo Show.
Technology has made massive improvements in recent years. Today, big techs and several innovative startups and new-age companies are betting big on AI-powered voice technologies, such as voice bot, voice chatbot, speech recognition, voice recognition, voice technology, voice assistants, and more.
COVID-19: A Game changer for Voice AI
The outbreak of Covid-19 has transformed customer service significantly. The pandemic changed everything from the way we shop, work, and live. With more people wanting to connect with their banks’ insurance providers, daily shopping, and other service providers to access more information and resolve their queries online, voice AI became more crucial than ever.
Analyst firm Gartner predicts, “By 2022, 70% of customer interactions will involve emerging technologies such as machine learning (ML) applications, chatbots, and mobile messaging. That’s an increase of 15% from 2018.”
The primary concern for businesses is to ensure that their customers remain engaged. As physical stores remain inaccessible, the best way businesses can engage their consumers is through ongoing conversations. For example, for a retail store, it is essential to communicate product updates, service quality, delays and disruptions in the supply chain to its customers, and so on.
During uncertain times, voice-based AI can be invaluable to businesses, helping customer service systems keep up with spikes in demand and reduce customer wait times and frustration.
The Benefits of Voice AI
Jagdish Mitra, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, Tech Mahindra says that Voice AI is the next frontier of enhanced intelligence as humans and machines harmonize to enable connected experiences. Virtual assistants are already disrupting the customer experience space and have a lot of advantages.
For example, brands that offer more personalization to their services win their customer’s hearts more readily. And this can be accomplished by voice AI technology. Conversations brings a personal touch that often provide a better and long-term connection between the company and the individuals.
Also, voice AI, when built into specific devices, can make life faster and easier. It can handle immense loads from customers and automate high-volume interactions. For businesses, this means resolving problems now takes less time than it would usually do if we did it manually or through traditional chatbots.
People who are visually challenged, elderly, and those with other disabilities and diseases like arthritis or hand tremors who have difficulties in typing [texts] can also benefit from conversational AI systems.
At the workplace, voice AI can provide support and assistance with routine tasks such as scheduling meetings or setting up reminders, like with Amazon’s Alexa, for example. This enables companies to streamline the process and leads to improved productivity and efficiency.
Through voice AI and chatbots, companies across verticals such as retail, technology, FMCG, banking and finance, etc., are providing real-time support to their customers. The speed and accuracy of responses provided by the technology is usually much higher thereby leading to significant enhancement in user experience. The AI doesn’t get tired and can deliver 24/7 support with consistent efficiency and ease. The technology is also faster in delivering automated responses to basic queries and transferring the call to human agents in case of an escalation.
According to Business Insider’s Voice Payments Report, 31% of US adults will be using voice payments by 2022. Besides being ‘touchless’ – a cleaner, safer method of interaction, voice user interfaces improve the customer experience by reducing wait times, understanding modifications, and offering sufficient follow-ups.
Are Voice AI Agents a threat to virtual human agents?
Indeed voice AI and other virtual agents have come a long way, making our lives easier, faster, and a lot more exciting. AI voice agents can process data at no time, round-the-clock, and almost error-free. They also do not get frustrated or bored with performing routine tasks. This brings us to the million-dollar question: Can voice AI take over the virtual human assistants?
The answer is: We’re still not there yet, but experts believe that in the near future, it is likely that more sophisticated voice AI may be integrated into businesses. These technologies will work side by side with humans.
However, there are some things that Voice bots and voice assistants cannot do. Like, virtual agents cannot be empathetic. For example, if a customer has lost a credit card and calls the bank customer support center to report the same, he or she may not prefer the chatbot’s robotic tone. The customer would rather want a more reassuring response from a human agent who is more experience-driven and empathetic.
Also, in today’s collaborative world, AI bots cannot work in a team, something that humans can. Needless to say, humans excel at creativity, innovation, and empathy. They are also culturally sensitive and think out of the box. Hence looping in the human factor can never be ruled out.
The ideal customer center is that where human agents and voice assistants complement each other – each using its unique strength – to boost productivity and enhance customer experience. The efficiency of a voice assistant and the skills of a human agent can be combined to boost productivity in customer-support centers.
Overcoming Challenges in Voice AI
Despite its phenomenal rise of AI-led voice agents, one cannot forget that we’re still in the early stages of AI, a technology that is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Hence, it is not surprising that voice AI applications usually come with their share of challenges.
One of the key problems is the inability of voice AI tools to understand what we’re saying. For example, a person in Malaysia is expected to have a different accent than a Ukrainian, even if both can speak in English. As a result, Siri or Alexa often fail to understand anything they’re saying.
There’s a serious problem getting Voice AI to listen to enough samples of diverse languages, accents, and dialects. However, a 2010 comedy sketch in which Scottish men trying to speak to a voice-enabled American-made elevator, justifies the voice AI challenges and gives us a good laugh.
The only way this situation can be improved is through technological advancement. Multilingual voice chatbots that can converse with users in several languages are seen to be a tremendous asset to any organization. This particularly holds in a highly linguistically diverse country like India.
Voice assistants carry the risks of regular cyber-attacks, as hackers leave no stones unturned to exploit vulnerabilities, especially when dealing with sensitive personal information. The AI-enabled voice solutions must be designed with security in mind to ensure that privacy is respected and all personal details are kept confidential or redacted based on the channel being used. In other words, safety must be baked into every aspect of voice AI applications.
CIO/CTOs also grapple with the issue of training their team in leveraging voice AI ethically as well as create better experiences. While this is an internal challenge, businesses are also responsible for educating the customer base on the opportunities and making them comfortable using the technology.
In the whitepaper entitled: “How May A.I. Assist You,” KPMG data scientist Dr. Arthur Franke states, “Every bot has a unique personality.” According to him, that ‘persona’ must align with the organization’s values for the bot to be successful. In other words, it should understand how to engage with different employees, from an apprentice to a senior manager.
He further recommends the interface needs to be less robotic and more human so that people want to interact with it. The best voice AI, according to experts, is one that is indistinguishable from humans in its conversational ability, intelligent behavior, and the way it is designed to handle problems.
Voice AI, including voice chatbots, voice searches, voice assistants, and other voice technology, is increasingly becoming sophisticated and gaining traction among all sizes and sectors. Those enterprises that are using Voice-based customer services are already reaping rich benefits. They are not only able to offer much superior service experiences to their customers but are seeing a clear difference in terms of increase in sales, productivity, and ROI.
In a post-pandemic world, when every business is under stress and customers are relying heavily on help centers, Voice AI is paving the way for business innovation. As Burman believes once we get past the early-stage challenges, the technology is going to provide incredible potential to personalize user experience and build customer loyalty across industries. Therefore, it is time to think about how to leverage voice AI to cultivate and foster the types of relationships that will help create strategic business advantage.